Robot 6

One of these things is not like the others: Three new Drawn and Quarterly books

Dan Zettwoch's "Birdseye Bristoe," Kevin Huizenga's "Gloriana" and Chester Brown's "Ed The Happy Clown"

Here are three June releases from Drawn and Quarterly: Kevin Huizenga’s Gloriana, Chester Brown’s Ed The Happy Clown and Dan Zettwoch’s Birdseye Bristoe.

They have several things in common, aside from the fact that they are all hardcover releases from the same publisher. They are all handsomely designed, for example, they all make lovely coffee table and bookshelf-filling objects, and they are all more or less important comics releases.

One of them is different in several significant ways, however.

The Brown book, which collects a series of strips that quickly evolved into a complete graphic novel from the pages of Brown’s 1980s cult classic Yummy Fur, lacks any fold-out pages.

Gloriana, which features several Glenn Ganges stories, has a four-page, horizontal fold-out of a key sequence in a story that deconstructs a moment in a time down to a molecular, cubist-like level, practically atomizing the comics page into a sort of Guernica of a comic book.

Birdseye Bristoe, the debut graphic novel of a promising new talent about the construction of a gigantic, Tower of Babel-sized cellphone tower in a small rural community, features a vertical, two-page fold-out diagram of the tower.

The Brown book, which does feature plenty of fairly fantastic-to-the-point-of-insane visual subject matter (ghosts, vampires, cannibal pygmies, Frankenstein, mad scientists, a severed self-ambulatory hand, naked ladies, a man who can’t stop defecating, a talking penis with the head of President Reagan who Brown draws to look nothing like Ronald Reagan, etc.), contains absolutely no drawings of Gamera, the giant turtle monster who starred in the 1960s cycle of Japanese  giant-monster films.

This fact, on its own, isn’t too terribly remarkable, as a lot of comic books do not feature drawings of Gamera. However, Gloriana and Birdseye Bristoe both do.

In Gloriana, Huizenga uses Gamera as an example of an extremely large object when discussing how the human eye and perception work during a story in which his protagonist Glenn Ganges explains why the moon looks huge and red to some neighbors one night:

In Birdseye Bristoe, Gamera appears in a panel illustrating part of character Clint Murgatroyd’s report on geodesic domes:

Brown’s Ed The Happy Clown differs from the other two books in another, perhaps more relevant to our purposes here, way: I didn’t care for it at all, while I really loved the other two.

Gloriana is another example of Huizenga doing what he does best, extrapolating epic events and consequences out of the most mundane subjects one can imagine: Carrying groceries in from the car, talking to your spouse while unpacking the groceries, having a phone conversation with a friend, noticing the moon one night. The aforementioned sequence, the one that’s so expansive it includes a fold-out, is summarized in a single line of dialogue: “Earlier I was at the library and the sun was setting.”

Birdseye Bristoe is probably the most tremendously exciting of the books, as it is from a relatively new creator, and is big, bright and colorful — the artwork, as well as the characters and storytelling. A cellphone company wants to put a tower into the titular area, and the old guy who owns the land they want to put it on agrees, so long as they meet a few conditions. Meanwhile, his great-niece and great-nephew arrive to spend the summer with him. Zettowoch tells the story by repeatedly breaking it into sections and running gags, usually presented as something appearing in the journals of one of the two teenagers. Krystal draws maps and illustrated lists, offers a tour of her uncle’s bungee cord and two-liter pop bottle inventions and interviews various characters. Clint makes little reports on various subjects. Zettowoch includes recipes and quizzes. The narrative is fast, funny and propulsive, but the experience of reading it is even better — it’s fun.

Ed The Happy Clown, however, is an awful bummer. After a few stop-and-start strips involving the title character, some scientists, some masked policemen and a Chester Brown avatar, a bigger, more ambitious narrative gradually begins to take shape, but it’s pretty tough reading. I made it through Brown’s graphic novel about having sex with prostitutes just fine, despite some misgivings here and there (especially at the resolution and throughout the prose end-section), but a lot of the content here is violent and scatalogical in the extreme.

Brown may draw, say, a room full of feces, or a semen-soaked hand or the head of a bald, jowly man attached to the end of a clowns penis vomiting very well, but that doesn’t really make them things I enjoy looking at. I don’t want to condemn the book purely on content, of course; do note that a cartoonist like Johnny Ryan could draw the same things, or grosser things, and the pictures will come out funny, or at least amusing, because of Ryan’s slick, classic cartoonist style. At this early point in Brown’s career, his style couldn’t really transcend and transform the subject matter, and most of the time, he doesn’t seem to be going for laughs or anything anyway.

I felt kind of defeated by the book, to be honest; I didn’t like it, it was hard for me to read, and I have trouble finding redeeming qualities to it. Aside from the obvious one: It provides a collection of the work of a great and important cartoonist. Certainly its far from his best work, but here it all is, easily accessible, and discussed at great (even tedious) length by the cartoonist himself in copious end notes. Brown’s a cartoonist whose work should all be easily available, to provide context for the rest of it, so I’m glad this book exists, even if I don’t like it.

But more importantly? It could have used a Gamera cameo.

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3 Comments

Something else the other two books have in common: their creators are both from St. Louis (REPRESENT!!!) and up until last week, both Zettwoch and Huizenga worked together on a fun strip called “Amazing Facts…and Beyond! with Leon Beyond” for the Riverfront Times.

http://leonbeyondfacts.blogspot.com/

That Chester Brown book sounds awful, especially when you say there’s things in there Johnny Ryan could have done better, as I generally can’t stand Ryan’s stuff, either. I did enjoy Brown’s “I Never Liked You,” but that sounds like a completely different animal than “Ed.”

I think one “problem” with ED is that it really shouldn’t be judged as a Graphic Novel — it was, what, 16 or so issues of YUMMY FUR, the periodical comic, and it was CLEARLY being made up as it was going along (in that, I think it suffers some of the same afflictions as LIKE A VELVET GLOVE does for Clowes)

At the time this was originally coming out (I’m sorry, Johnny WHO?) this was… well maybe not revelatory, per se, but certainly absolutely and completely unlike any other work that was coming out at the time, and it’s restless, hallucinatory, absurdist qualities really made it stand out.

I think ED is really built to be read in 12 or 16 page chunks — it’s almost like an episode of MONTY PYTHON then.

-B

As Brian Hibbs notes, ED wasn’t intended to be a GN as much as a running experiment– in fact, it began as a motivational exercise by Brown to do more than an average of a panel a week, his output prior to the publication of the first YF ‘ziine / mini.

While a great deal of the material may be sociologically & psychosexually cockeyed, it was also very much a purging of the id on par with R. Crumb. It wasn’t intended to shock anyone other than Chester himself. He hadn’t set out to make a GN, but the story decided it wanted to be a book. I think Chester was as disquieted by this as anyone, hence the variations in how ED ends, depending on whether you read the individual comix or its multiple collected editions. It’s awkward, but I think that’s inherently the nature of the book.

The fact that ED’s stuck around this long is significant in my eyes; yes, there are prettier examples of Chester’s work– Riel cannot be topped for clean-line brush technique –but it’s among the most unintentionally honest & aesthetically unhinged, off-off-broadway-by-way-of-Canada indy art to emerge from the ’80s. Brown trained himself to be an artist via ED, and YF was his dojo.

To dismiss ED as not being fun or experimental enough by comparing it to work of more recent vintage does the work, and Chester Brown, something of a disservice. I grant you, ED *is* a matter of taste– but it’s also a matter of context. I doubt we’d have the published alternatives available today if it weren’t for Brown slugging it out with his own id back in ’83.

And we certainly wouldn’t have those tasty 1963 Image comix. Or Louis Riel. ED has its place in comix history, and I believe that place is well-deserved, if not exactly god-tier.

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